By O. Bahadir Dincer
Recently, it seems that one of the vital issues of the Middle East, the Palestinian issue, has been taken to the forefront of the international arena. Right before the Middle East Quartet’s visit to the region, Israel approved the construction of forty housing units in the West Bank as well as called for closing the Al-Aqsa Mosque. This creates the question of whether this is a maneuver to distract attention as whenever the Palestinian issue is brought up, all focus shifts solely on this issue.
The Palestine question is among the most important problems of the Middle East. Everyone knows that it is one of the basic sores in the way of a regional peace. The subject has occupied the most time at the U.N. There are many factors which exacerbate this problem and prevent moving toward a settlement.
When one lists the reasons why it has become a chronic problem, its importance becomes much more obvious. The first factor (1) which has to be considered is the one-sided, realpolitik, confrontational and inflammatory policies followed by Israel. To this must immediately be added as a second factor (2) the Western world’s insistence on refraining from any appearance of opposition to Israel. Alongside these two elements, which we might describe as hostile resentment, it is unfortunately necessary to add further factors which could be labeled as the bad faith of friends. The existing Arab regimes acted chiefly out of concern for their political security and viewed the continuation of the status quo in the Palestinian problem. This caused the problem not to be handled in a sincere fashion (3). The Arab world was fragmented and could not act in unison and this served the Israeli strategy (4). On top of this, while Israel was enjoying this strategic support, the mistaken strategies of friends, i.e. the Muslim world, caused Israel to be stronger and to appear to be more in the right (5). The absence of unison between the different Palestinian groups was nothing other than imprudence (6).
The first two factors concern Israel directly but when studied carefully, one can see that the others all also show signs of Israel’s desire to interfere directly in the problem. Put another way, manipulation by Israel and the disputes over the subjects which it has brought onto the agenda have the effect of making steps taken by friendly countries into things that help Israel.
The Political Transformation of the Middle East and the Palestinian Problem
The bouleversements now taking place in the Arab world have jolted the existing regimes there. Events are working against Israel. Being naturally uncomfortable about this, Israel is doing its best to weaken the popular movements and is trying to ensure that the transitional regimes do not work properly in order to ensure the continuation of the old regime. Because of that it wants to bring the Palestinian issue back onto the agenda and overshadow all the other problems. Because it knows that if the Palestinian problem is on the agenda¸ then the Muslim world, always being vulnerable to emotional diversions, would simply talk, begin once more to follow its accustomed mistaken strategies, and the focus on the rightful struggle by the people would slip away.
This drags on and Israel masterfully organizes things, trying to ensure that the other players make mistake after mistake. Israel’s anxiety is the possibility that the third factor listed above might disappear and that that politics there would reflect more closely the will of the people, and as a result the fourth – the consequences of those mistakes – would not continue. It is precisely because of this that it is necessary for everyone to be more careful. Everything should not be seen as depending on the Palestinian problem and in particular Gaza; there should be a focus on the correct strategies.
The priority should be not allowing ourselves to be immersed in the Gaza problem and getting stuck there however great the provocation. A glance at what has happened since the Palmer report was leaked to the media in early September shows that discussion is taking place on exactly the basis that Israel wishes it to. Gaza does not equal either the Turkish-Israeli tension or the things the Arab world is experiencing. And the Palestinian question does not just consist of Gaza. Nothing has helped Israel as much as the fact that all the attention is concentrated on Gaza. For then factors three and four above slow down the process of solving the real issues and bring things to a standstill and dissipate the energy of the people to stand up against authoritarian regimes into other directions (5). Countries like Turkey have the potential to make a difference internationally in this problem and so solve it, but their attention has been distracted and in particular they have upset their legitimacy with Western public opinion. Because by focusing on this point, they appear to be on a par with Hamas, Syria, and Iran, and this is easily exploited. No matter how sincere their efforts are to make their position plain, all they do is play into the hands of Israel.
Gaza and the Palestinian Problem
The risk which might arise from conflating the Palestinian problem with Gaza is not simply that it might overshadow the rest of what is going on in the Arab world. This interpretation opens the way to neglecting the problems of Jerusalem and the settlements, and reducing the Palestinian problem to just Gaza and Hamas. This is something on which Western opinion can easily be manipulated. As long as Gaza and Hamas monopolize attention, there will be no discussion of Jerusalem and the settlements.
It may be noted that when the Israeli-Palestinian problems or the tensions between Turkey and Israel are being discussed, the subjects which do not attract enough attention are the problem of Jerusalem and the Jewish settlements. The things that are happening with these two great issues do not attract interest from most people. Everyone knows that Gaza is the largest open-air prison in the world, but almost no one knows that every year many Palestinians are unjustly deprived of the right to live in Jerusalem or are forced out of their homes. In the same way, the fact that more than 500,000 Israelis have settled illegally in Jerusalem or the West Bank does not attract the attention due to it. Whereas energy devoted to these questions would make things more difficult for Israel in the eyes of the international community.
This being the situation, it can be seen clearly that the argument that all other questions cannot be resolved until the Palestinian problem is settled is nothing other than a delusion. In order to find a solution for the Palestinian problem, it might be useful to look at this argument the other way round. If other problems, i.e. factors 4, 5, and 6 listed above, which cause the issue to become a chronic difficulty, could be resolved, then the Palestinian issue itself would be easier to solve. Because Israel would then face a stronger opponent, one that had become a single fist, one which would be able to formulate its policies intelligently and know what it should do and how. Because Israel is aware of this, it desires that issues which it can manipulate or direct should come onto the agenda. Because of this, it continually scratches at Gaza and for the same reason it tries to make international players like Turkey busy with other subjects.
The Palestine issue is a just cause and we should be concerned with it, but it is very clear that there is a need to act in a more balanced and strategic fashion. Efforts to ensure that the Arab Spring yields results and steps toward a solution of the Palestinian issue should be carried out in parallel, and more importantly, the issue should be debated in a manner that is totally independent from the frame drawn by Israel.
O. Bahadir Dincer
USAK Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies
Turkish version of this article was firstly published in November issue of USAK’s monthly journal ANALIST.